The Meaning of Meaning

It is no news that words mean different things to different people.

Take, for example, that well-known play on words ‘Affirming Catholicism’.

Punning like a Guardian headline, it means the opposite of what you think it means. Parse it and you will see what I mean. If ‘affirming’ is a verb, ‘Affirming Catholicism’ is the designation of a group of people, like you and me, who want to affirm the Catholic Faith. If ‘affirming’ is an adjective, it means a group of people who, quite unlike you and me, want the Catholic Faith to affirm something else – their own individual opinions or life-style choices, as you might guess. ‘Affirming Catholicism’, in its adjectival manifestation, starts with Rowan Williams and ends in Richard Holloway.

The adjectival (and dominant) form of the phrase is also, of course, an oxymoron. The catholic and universal (‘according to the whole’) cannot ‘affirm’ the particular and local. The reverse must always be the case.

‘Affirming Catholics’, I have recently noted, have been indulging in another piece of creative word play. They are developing their own meaning for the word ‘incarnational’.

The Incarnation, in Catholic dogma, refers to the enfleshment of the Logos in the womb of Mary. It is an unrepeatable historical event with all the ramifications of such an event. It was as decisive as the Battle of Waterloo, and for just the same reasons. God chose to be an itinerant first-century rabbi. It might not be our choice; but because it was his choice, it is a choice we have to live with.

But, as in the phrase recently used by the Bishop Elect of Washington DC, ‘ours is an incarnational religion’, ‘incarnation’ is coming to mean something quite different; indeed, opposite.

What the Bishop Elect meant was that ours is a religion which accommodates itself to historical circumstance and progressive change – ‘Accommodating Catholicism’, as you might say. The unhealthy obsessions of a first-century rabbi about sex, sin, death and salvation are transitory, not determinative. Every generation has the opportunity, and is given the grace of the Holy Spirit, to see things clearer and do things better.

Less ‘incarnational’ and more re-incarnational, I would say.

GK

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